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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 August, 2004, 13:01 GMT 14:01 UK
Singapore's philosopher-prince'
By Andrew Wood
BBC, Singapore

Lee Hsien Loong, the eldest son of Singapore's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, was on Thursday sworn in as the republic's third prime minister, after spending 14 years as deputy premier.

Lee Hsien Loong
Mr Lee: Deputy PM since 1990
Lee Hsien Loong is perhaps the closest the modern world has to the ancient thinker Plato's idea of a philosopher-prince.

He is undoubtedly intelligent, with degrees from Cambridge and Harvard universities, and he has been groomed from an early age to lead his country.

"The son has now achieved the father's ambition," one shopkeeper said, who did not want to be named.

Lee Kuan Yew has long said that his son was talented enough to have been prime minister years ago, but for misplaced concerns about dynastic successions.


Whatever the official denials, having an eldest son as leader plays well in Singapore's Confucian-flavoured patriarchal political culture.

"There are a few wry smiles about the succession, but there are no doubts about his [Lee Hsien Loong's] competence," says David Cohen, director of Asia economic forecasting at Action Economics in Singapore.

"I think no-one is anticipating a radical departure from what we have come to expect from the Singapore government."

That is echoed by social critic and gay activist, Alex Au. "He's not a new prime minister. He's been a cabinet minister for two decades, and deputy prime minister for 14 years."

Mr Au dismisses hopes that Mr Lee will free Singapore's nanny state from its strict social controls.

"He's had a lot of input into current policies. I don't think he has any new ideas or style of leadership. That hasn't come through. I don't see any major departure from current policies."

The outgoing prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, suggested that Mr Lee try to soften his no-nonsense, uncompromising and tough image.

Mixed signals

In recent months, Singaporeans have been treated to lots of articles and programmes in the government-controlled media that show Mr Lee's cuddlier side.

We need to keep a certain stability and ballast so that when we move, we have the advantage of the experience of people who have moved ahead of us
Lee Hsien Loong

However, Mr Goh's attempts in a 2003 National Day rally speech to quash rumours that Mr Lee once slapped a colleague in a cabinet meeting may have backfired.

One look at the satirical website TalkingCock.com (named after a Singaporean expression for spouting nonsense), suggests that Mr Goh may have inadvertently stimulated more jokes at Mr Lee's expense.

He has had a troubled personal life. He has suffered - and overcome - cancer. His first wife is said to have committed suicide. Their son is albino and autistic.

Mr Lee gives mixed signals about the direction he will lead Singapore. He has hinted that Singapore needs modernisation, and more openness.

But he has also promised to fight political enemies hard - even Singapore's weak and fragmented opposition.

Singapore is trying to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. It has big ambitions to lead the world in anything from logistics to biotechnology.

Business as usual

But Mr Lee seems to prefer his country to take things slowly.

In April, he told parliament: "If you are absolutely up at the leading edge in matters of social change, you are never quite sure whether the leading edge has taken a wrong turn, needs to back track and make a U-turn.

Goh Chok Tong (archive picture)
Lee's predecessor will remain in cabinet as senior minister

"We need to keep a certain stability and ballast so that when we move, we have the advantage of the experience of people who have moved ahead of us.

"And when they have gone a strange way, we will wait and see and if after one or two generations, it still makes sense, and if yes, then we follow them."

Stability has long been one of Singapore's selling points, something that few other countries in the region can offer.

The change of leader has been flagged for years.

The People's Action Party has been in power since 1959. Its pragmatic, business-friendly economic policies have delivered wealth, homes and jobs.

It is not a liberal democracy in the Western sense, but that does not seem to worry Singaporeans. At elections, the vast majority of people who can vote, choose the PAP.

There are few signs that Lee Hsien Loong will radically change course for his country. Success has bred success.

But cruelly, the roots of failure are often nourished by the same conditions that led to that success. That may be the biggest challenge to the reign of the philosopher-prince.

The BBC's Jonathan Head
"They are supremely capable but their great fear is that there's a lack of imagination"

Singapore tries to loosen up
12 Jul 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Lee Kuan Yew staying on at 80
16 Sep 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Singapore
26 Aug 03  |  Country profiles

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