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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 September, 2003, 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK
Lee Kuan Yew staying on at 80

By Tim Luard
BBC News Online

Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew marked his 80th birthday on Tuesday showing no sign of relaxing his family's grip on power.

Mr Lee's legacy is assured as the man who turned the island from a sleepy backwater into one of the world's wealthiest states.

Lee Kuan Yew
Mr Lee has admitted to having less energy than 10 years ago
But even in tightly controlled Singapore, eyebrows have been raised by his announcement at the weekend that he will stay on, despite his age, in his current post of "Senior Minister".

The statement has prompted questions about the Lee family's influence, especially since his son, 51-year-old Lee Hsien Loong, is due to take over as prime minister within the next year or two.

The elder Mr Lee, who became prime minister in 1959, relinquished the post to Goh Chok Tong in 1990.

But since then he has still sometimes seemed the ultimate decision-maker.

"On issues he feels strongly about he will probably carry the day, even if other cabinet members disagree," says Manu Bhaskaran, a Singapore analyst.

"A lot of people assume that what he says goes," he told BBC News Online.

Birthday wishes

I used to dash around ... dictate.. get things done
Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew
Mr Lee's birthday was marked in customarily deferential manner by Singapore's newspapers. The English-language Straits Times ran a special section entitled "Well Wishes".

In an exclusive interview with the paper, Mr Lee acknowledged that he was slowing down with age.

"What I miss most is the high levels of physical energy I had up to ten years ago. I used to dash around, meet people, talk, dictate, get things done," he told the paper.

But Mr Lee dismissed the idea of retiring when his son takes over as prime minister, saying he would serve in the cabinet as long as he could contribute, and then remain a Member of Parliament while he was "fit and able".

Asked if anyone would dare tell him when he was no longer useful, he replied "You don't have to tell me. I can feel it".

Parentage or ability

But if he is as reluctant as ever to let go of power, he seems to be ensuring that what he does give up stays within the family.

His son Lee Hsien Loong is due to take over from Goh Chok Tong as prime minister before the next election - due by 2007 - and more probably by next year or 2005 at the latest.

Some observers have warned that the elder Lee's continued role in cabinet will put even more of a spotlight on the new prime minister's parentage rather than his ability.

"Some people might feel it's a little odd to have someone serving in his son's cabinet", says Manu Bhaskaran.

Media consultant Ravi Veloo says Singaporeans are united in respecting Lee Kuan Yew - with many regarding him in benign, almost reverential terms.

Lee Kuan Yew, at the age of 36
Won Singapore's independence from Britain
Introduced pro-Japan "Look East" economic policy
Expounded Asian Values based on Confucian morality
"The history of Singapore begins with Lee Kuan Yew. That's what they're taught and that's what they believe".

But many people would now like him to "enjoy his retirement," he said.

"The old man staying on doesn't seem necessary. There's a new team. He can't help but cast a long shadow", Mr Veloo told BBC News Online.

Garry Rodan, professor of politics and director of the Asia Research Centre at Australia's Murdoch University, goes further:

"Lee Hsien Loong has already had to work hard to disabuse people of the idea that he has benefited from his family connection. And now to be prime minister and to have his father still in the influential special minister's post will for many people just underline the tightly overlapping nature of power in Singapore," he said.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that Lee Hsien Loong's wife - Ho Ching - is executive director of a powerful government investment arm.

"It all looks very cosy," Dr Rodan said.

"Previous and present prime ministers' wives have also had accomplished careers in the private sector", noted Mr Veloo.

"The difference here is that the new prime minister's wife is likely to be a powerful executive influence within the public sector. This is new to Singapore and will take some getting used to".

Singapore tries to loosen up
12 Jul 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Singapore
26 Aug 03  |  Country profiles

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