Singapore:What Comes After Lee Kuan Yew? – All political leaders worry about their legacies. Lee Kuan Yew, who presided over Singapore either directly or indirectly for more than a half-century – remaining influential right up to his death at 91 – had more time in power than most to do so. Several volumes of memoirs attest to Lee’s concern about his legacy, although Singapore’s extraordinary success under his leadership speaks for itself. Like him or not – and many did not – there is no denying the city-state’s remarkable and enduring prosperity and stability.

Yet the effort put into those memoirs by the man who called himself “Minister Mentor” during his later years offers a clue about Lee’s ultimate concern. His legacy in terms of Singapore’s past success may be clear, but what about the future?

That, of course, is one of the few things he could not control, beyond offering his teachings to future generations. Yet in one crucial respect – determining who Singapore’s new generation of leaders will be – the tight control that Lee exercised in the past may now make that future more difficult. The issue is certainly solvable, especially given an excellent education system and high-quality institutions of all kinds. But Lee’s own actions suggest that he harbored doubts.
The succession to Lee was clear: after handing over the premiership in 1990 (at the surprisingly young age of 66) to a trusted associate, Goh Chok Tong, he groomed his eldest son, Brigadier-General Lee Hsien Loong, for the job. After serving as Singapore’s trade minister, finance minister, and deputy prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong took over the top post in 2004. What is unresolved is where power goes next, and how.
Perhaps the answer will simply be that the ruling People’s Action Party will choose a successor in the conventional way. Certainly, Singapore’s cadre of talented and experienced officials and ministers is deep. Still, the question is an open one, owing to Lee Kuan Yew’s somewhat paradoxical sensitivity to the prominence of his family members in some of the country’s most senior posts.
Lee fought many battles with the international media over their coverage of Singapore, especially from the mid-1980s onward, by which point the country’s success had become abundantly clear. As a Cambridge-trained lawyer, he was especially keen on using the law to browbeat his media (and political) critics, knowing full well that he had no serious chance of losing in Singapore’s own courts.
During my time as the editor-in-chief of The Economist (1993-2006), I received such browbeatings on many occasions. What eventually became clear was that under no circumstances could Lee Kuan Yew countenance one particular word or concept: nepotism. After all, he had set up Singapore as an intensely meritocratic society, in which competition, under clear and accepted rules, was king. So when his own son became Prime Minister, and his daughter-in-law, Ho Ching, took the helm at Temasek, one of the state’s huge investment companies, any insinuation that they had done so on anything other than their own merit was unacceptable.
Lee established a high-minded committee to establish that nepotism was not the reason, and then set about suing anyone who dared to suggest otherwise. Yet this abhorrence of nepotism was illogical – and Lee was generally nothing if not logical, even ruthlessly so – because in this case a perfectly good justification for it followed smoothly from his own analysis of Singapore.
A tiny, multi-racial society ejected from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore was born in an atmosphere of vulnerability, lack of legitimacy and trust, and ethnic conflict. Up through the 1980s and 1990s, Lee often justified the continuation of authoritarian policies by reference to those communal riots, and to the ever-present possibility of a loss of social trust and a return to conflict.
So, in passing the baton to his eldest son, he could be said to have dealt with that risk in the most logical way possible. If you trusted the founder of Singapore and thought him legitimate, who better to trust than the founder’s own son? Indeed, the father would remain on the scene, first as “Senior Minister” and then in his mentor role, and had made his son prove his abilities openly in a series of prominent positions.
It worked, and Lee Hsien Loong has by all accounts done a good job as Prime Minister, whatever the explanation for his rise. There is no current risk to Singapore’s political stability, and the younger Lee is only 63 years old; he could remain in office for a long time to come.
The question, though, remains: What happens next? Lee Kuan Yew dealt with the question of succession by deferring it. His son will need to provide the answer.