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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 January, 2004, 10:00 GMT
Singapore readies for new leader

By Tim Luard
BBC News Online

As it stands on the threshold of its second leadership change in 40 years, Singapore is trying hard to shake off its reputation as an over-protective nanny state and embrace a new, more vibrant social and political era.

Lee Hsien Loong
Mr Lee, like his father, is seen as a stern figure
Future prime minister Lee Hsien Loong - son of the nation's founding father Lee Kuan Yew - says it is time for the government to "cut the apron strings".

But just how much of a real change will accompany Mr Lee's long-awaited coming to power remains unclear.

In a speech that gave important clues as to what Singaporeans can expect when he takes over from current premier Goh Chok Tong - probably in the middle of this year - he said the government had taken on responsibility for many things which citizens should really deal with themselves.

"Whether it is a ceiling leak, a mosquito nuisance or a troublesome neighbour, usually the first question which people ask is: What will the government do about it?" he told Singapore's Harvard Club this week.

"Nanny should not look after everything all the time," he said.

Singapore is going through a transition, according to Mr Lee, with a younger generation, born after independence, now in a majority.

"I have no doubt that our society must open up further," he said.

He promised to promote a political culture which responded to people's desire for greater participation.

Bans on gay rights groups and other activists might also soon be lifted, he suggested, as the government moved to ease curbs on political and social freedoms.

Mr Lee's father built Singapore into South East Asia's richest nation, imposing tight controls in the process on everything from the freedom of the press to the chewing of gum.

The younger Lee has been deputy premier since 1990 and was informally lined up for the top job even before then.

After waiting in the wings for all these years, he is now signalling that it is time for change.

Talk shows

Goh Chok Tong
As premier Goh says goodbye, is real change on the way?
Manu Baskaran, head of economic research at Singapore's Centennial Group, said: "This was a big speech, in which Mr Lee admitted that the Government doesn't have all the answers and must open up".

This is a message that is already filtering through to the present government, he said.

"Something is brewing. They are saying ministers must be more sensitive and responsive - for instance they must do things like going on live talk shows".

In recent days the local media have been confidently predicting that Mr Lee will finally take over as Premier this year - and probably before National Day in August. An announcement is expected in the first quarter of the year.

"No one is suggesting Mr Goh has stayed too long, but he has made up his mind to leave... and a handover does sound imminent," says Wang Gungwu, Director of the East Asia Institute at the National University of Singapore.

Mr Goh, who was once written off as a weak, transitionary figure - a mere seat-warmer for the Lee family - has become popular among ordinary Singaporeans.

His deputy, on the other hand - who rose to brigadier-general in the Singapore armed forces, earning him the nickname B.G. - is seen, like his father, as a stern, authoritarian figure.

"There's a feeling that Lee is not as gentle, polite and soft as the image projected by Goh," Professor Wang said.


"As Finance Minister , he has proved himself to be efficient, clear minded, dynamic, and prepared to tackle difficult issues. But we still don't really know him."

They've allowed bar-top dancing, but people want to do more than shake their backsides
Chia Shi Tek, politician
Mr Lee has tried to project a warmer image in recent months by being shown in the newspapers in more informal poses, such as with an arm round his wife.

His promise of a freer society, offering more options for individuals, does fit in with the mood of the country, according to Professor Wang.

But many say it does not go far enough. And they fear Lee Hsien Loong will prove as intolerant of political opposition as his father.

Despite his promises of greater participation, the future prime minister is wary about opening up too quickly, says Chia Shi Tek, a former Member of Parliament known for his criticism of the government.

"Singapore society is changing in a lot of areas but politically it's still guarded, " he said.

"They've allowed bar-top dancing, but people want to do more than shake their backsides. They want to be consulted, to play a part in making political decisions, and to get away from this Confucian respect for all authority".

At the moment, the most that is being offered politically is a chance to put in "the commas and full stops" on policies that have already been made, says Mr Chia.

"Our famous Speaker's Corner is just a joke. You need a police permit before you get up to speak."

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

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