Saturday, March 10, 2007

Post No. 104: "The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same"...?

What follows below is a reproduction of the term essay I have written for my PS2249 (Government & Politics of Singapore) module, in response to the question of: "To what extent is Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's government different from that of his predecessors?".

“The more things change, the more they stay the same”. Could this perhaps describe the current government led by Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong? Well, perhaps it is still too early for people to give a proper and fair assessment of PM Lee’s government, considering that he has only took over as Singapore’s third PM in late 2004 and won his first General Elections (GE) in the role of PM only in May last year. However, looking at recent policy initiatives, developments and his own track record, it is possible for one to come to the conclusion that PM Lee’s government is perhaps only to a limited extent different from that of his predecessors, in that while PM Lee’s government may have initiated some significant policy changes after PM Lee took over the position of PM from Mr. Goh Chok Tong, who now holds the position of Senior Minister (SM) in the current Cabinet, it has yet made much major radical departures away from the core principles and policies which were put in place by PM Lee’s two predecessors and which they have governed Singapore by. Thus, in other words, it may be observed that, as of now, there has been more continuity than change, if not continuity in change, for PM Lee’s government (and if I am allowed to make a prediction, I would say that the possibility is quite low that PM Lee’s government will become in the future radically different from that of his predecessors).

Of course, it would not be fair or proper if we fail to acknowledge the policy changes which have been put in place by PM Lee’s government. And of these changes, the most notable and obvious one would undoubtedly be the decision to allow the construction and setting up of not one but two casinos, euphemistically referred to as “Integrated Resorts” (IRs), in Singapore. This decision is especially significant, in that while the concept of opening casinos in Singapore had been mooted in earlier years, it was rejected by both of PM Lee’s predecessors and even by PM Lee himself when he was still the deputy PM, citing reasons such as the presence of casinos in Singapore would bring about much social ills[1] [2].

Another policy change which has been implemented by PM Lee’s government in 2005 would be that of the implementation of a 5-day workweek for the public sector. Again, this decision is somewhat significant, in that, as revealed by PM Lee himself when he announced it in his National Day Rally Speech of 2004, it is something long resisted by the Government[3].

Also, faced with new circumstances such as the onset of globalisation, the emergence of a younger generation of Singaporeans and the rise of what is commonly termed collectively as the new media, PM Lee’s government, as revealed by PM Lee himself in his National Day Rally Speech of 2006, has indicated its willingness to utilise the new medium of new media to engage with Singaporeans and to get its message across to them[4]. Already, we can see example of this willingness with the setting up of the P65 blog[5] which is a blog manned by the People’s Action Party (PAP) Members of Parliament who are born after 1965, Mr. George Yeo (Minister of Foreign Affairs) becoming a guest contributor for certain selected local blogs[6] (although Mr. Yeo claims that this “guest blogging” is more of a personal initiative than a governmental initiative, one cannot help but notice the convenient timing of his blog entries appearing soon after PM Lee’s abovementioned announcement) and, most recently, the live webcast of the Budget Speech 2007[7].

However, as significant as the abovementioned policy changes may be, it is possible, if one takes a closer look at the rationale behind them, to detect a thread of continuity running through all of them. For the decision to allow the setting up of IRs in Singapore, one can observe that it was based on the rationale to maintain the economic viability and competitiveness of Singapore in a globalised economy[8] [9], something which PM Lee’s two predecessors have also sought to do during their terms as PMs. As for the decision to implement a 5-day workweek for the public sector, it may be observed that it was motivated by a concern to create a better work-life balance for Singaporeans so that they are able to spend more time with their families and/or to start families and thus help to reverse Singapore’s population decline[10], a concern which PM Lee’s predecessors also had. And as for the Government’s willingness to make use of new media to engage Singaporeans, one may perhaps see it as a strategy by the PAP Government to ensure that it does not lose touch with the electoral ground, something which the two predecessors of PM Lee have also constantly tried to do. Furthermore, even as PM Lee announced the Government’s willingness to use the new media as a tool to engage Singaporeans, he cautioned in the same speech that this does not mean that politics in Singapore would become any less serious and that the Government “cannot govern based on jokes, sound-bites, or distortions”[11]. Hence, it may be observed that these policy changes put in place by PM Lee’s government can perhaps not be described as changes per se but rather as new strategies to achieve the perennial objectives of the PAP Government.

Moving on, one evident similarity between PM Lee’s government and that of his two predecessors would obviously be that it remains a government formed by the PAP. Hence, it is highly improbable that the current government under the leadership of PM Lee would make any major radical departures away from the core governing principles, such as meritocracy, incorruptibility, pragmatism, multi-lingualism, multiculturalism & having an open economy, which his two predecessors have governed Singapore by. And, as all of us can clearly see, PM Lee’s government has made no attempts whatsoever at attempting to abandon the abovementioned principles or even make any suggestions that they may attempt to do so. Instead, if we look at the various speeches & interviews given by members of PM Lee’s government, we would clearly see that they have repeatedly emphasised, almost to the point of ad nauseam, the value and necessity of the abovementioned principles in ensuring the survival and prosperity of Singapore. In fact, in his inaugural speech after he was swore in as the PM in 2004, PM Lee himself emphasised the importance of these principles and said that he would “build on the foundations” laid by his two predecessors[12]. Hence, with regards to the governing principles which they follow, there is little difference between PM Lee’s government and that of his predecessors.

Also, it can be noted that PM Lee’s current team of ministers consists mainly, if not entirely, of ministers who have served under the leadership of his predecessors[13]. In fact, if we are to examine PM Lee’s own curriculum vitae (CV), we would no doubt recognise that he has been intimately involved, since his entry into politics in 1984, in policymaking decisions under the leadership of his two predecessors. As can be seen from his CV, PM Lee, before he took over as PM, has been involved in various key ministries, such as Trade & Industry, Defence and Finance[14], acted as the chairman of two important governmental committees[15] and served as a deputy PM to his immediate predecessor, Mr. Goh Chok Tong, for a period of 14 years. Thus, with regards to the key personnel involved in policy decisions, there is again little difference between the current government under the leadership of PM Lee and that of his predecessors. And, with this in mind and considering PM Lee’s CV, it is perhaps safe to say that is quite unlikely that the current government would introduce any form of revolutionary changes that will depart away from the policies that were put in place during PM Lee’s predecessors’ tenures as PMs, since it is quite obvious that they would have contributed much to the formulation of these policies and had agreed to them when they were first implemented.

Furthermore, bearing in mind the dominant role played by PM Lee in the Government in his position as PM, it would be necessary for us to look at PM Lee’s political worldview and that of his predecessors when we seek to determine the extent of difference between their governments. And, looking at the statements that PM Lee has made publicly in speeches and in interviews, one would observe that his political worldview is not that much different from that of his predecessors. For example, with regards to his opinion on the local political opposition, it appears that PM Lee and his predecessors have similar views, in that he also regards them as being of low calibre and as more of a hindrance than as an asset or integral part to the political functioning of Singapore[16] [17] [18]. Another example of this would be how, similar to his predecessors, PM Lee is also of the opinion that while it is perhaps inevitable that Singapore, in face of changing circumstances, would need to continue opening up, this process of opening up should be one which is gradual & progressive and not one which is radical & sudden[19] [20]. And if these two examples are not enough, it is also possible for one to observe that PM Lee, similar to his predecessors, holds the opinion that while the Government should consult the opinions of Singaporeans about governmental policies and issues, the final decision, ultimately, still rests with the Government because Singapore cannot be governed through popular polls and referendums[21] [22]. Hence, considering how similar PM Lee’s political worldview is with that of his predecessors and remembering the dominant role that PM Lee plays in the Government, we would see that PM Lee’s government is perhaps only to a limited extent different from that of his predecessors.

Hence, in conclusion, it can be evidently recognised that, comparing the current PAP Government led by PM Lee with that of his two predecessors, little difference may perhaps be found. As has already been pointed out in the introductory paragraph of this essay, the current Government, while having undeniably initiated certain policy changes, remains fundamentally the same as those under the leadership of PM Lee’s predecessors, in that they still abide by the same core governing principles & policies and are made up of the same key personnel who share a similar political worldview. Thus, in the end, while I would not claim myself to be a seer of any sort, it is my prediction that, when looking back at this period of time in Singapore’s development & history, historians of the future would agree with the assessment that PM Lee’s government, at least in its initial years of 2004 to 2007, is different from that of his two predecessors perhaps only to a limited extent.


Notes and References

[1] Ministerial speech by MM Lee Kuan Yew in Parliament, “Why Old Virtues Are Not Enough”, The Straits Times, 20/4/2005

In this speech, MM Lee said: “On several occasions, my business friends in Hong Kong suggested that Stanley Ho, who ran casinos in Macau, would be happy to start one in Singapore. I ruled it out. I did not want to undermine Singapore’s work ethic and breed the belief that people can get rich by gambling…”

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[2] Ministerial statement by PM Lee Hsien Loong, “Staying Ahead In The Global Sweepstakes”, The Straits Times, 19/4/2005

In this statement, PM Lee said: “In 2002, I chaired the Economic Review Committee looking for new strategies to grow our economy. Mr. Wee Ee-chao led the Tourism Working Group. He wrote to me proposing a ‘world-class gaming facility’. I replied to him explaining why I was against it”.

PM Lee then quoted from the letter he wrote to Mr. Wee which said that while “there may economic merits to setting up a casino in Singapore”, the negative “social impact” of doing so would not be “negligible”.

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[3] National Day Rally Speech 2004 by PM Lee, accessed on 22/2/2007

In this speech, PM Lee said: “We have always resisted a five-day week. I have made this argument many times. When I went into Monetary Authority of Singapore, they put up a paper, I said, ‘No’. Last year, they were about to put up a paper. Before they could put it up, I had already answered somebody else ‘no’ in the newspapers. So, they withdrew their proposal”.

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[4] National Day Rally Speech 2006 by PM Lee, accessed on 3/3/2007

In this speech, PM Lee said: “We still need to get our message across. We will use the new media, multimedia, podcast, vodcast, all these things which you get in the Internet, or somebody sends to you by email, I think our ministries, our agencies have to experiment, have to try it out”.

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[5] This blog can be found here

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[6] Foreign Minister George Yeo guest blogs at these two blogs. His first blog entry appeared on 30/8/2006, 10 days after PM Lee’s National Day Rally Speech of that year, here

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[7] The live webcast of the Budget Speech 2007 can be found here, accessed on 16/2/2007. However, it is only available from 15/2/2007 to 16/3/2007

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[8] “Why Old Virtues Are Not Enough”, see supra note no. 1

In this speech, MM Lee: “If we reject these IR projects, the world’s investors and players will mentally scratch us off the list of countries that [they] will go for business, for leisure and entertainment”.

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[9] “Staying Ahead In The Global Sweepstakes”, see supra note no. 2

In this speech, PM Lee said: “We cannot stand still. The whole region is on the move. If we do not change, where will we be in 20 years’ time? Losing our appeal to tourists is the lesser problem. But if we become a backwater, just one of many ordinary cities in Asia, instead of being a cosmopolitan hub of the region, then many good jobs will be lost, and all Singaporeans will suffer. We cannot afford that”.

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[10] National Day Rally Speech 2004 by PM Lee, see supra note no. 3

In this speech, PM Lee, in reference to the proposal of implementing a 5-day workweek for the public sector, said: “This package by itself isn't going to solve the problem, but if it changes Singaporean mindsets towards marriage, family and children and causes people to think again and reorder their priorities in life, then I think it will contribute to turning the situation around”.

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[11] National Day Rally Speech 2006 by PM Lee, see supra note no. 4

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[12] Swearing in speech by PM Lee on 12/8/2004, accessed on 22/2/2007

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[13] The list of current Cabinet Ministers and their respective CVs can be found here, accessed on 22/2/2007

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[14] Cabinet Appointments: Mr. Lee Hsien Loong, accessed on 23/2/2007

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[15] PM Lee was the chairman of the Economic Committee in 1985 and of the Economic Review Committee from 2001-2003; both committees were set up to review & revise Singapore’s economic policies in face of economic downturns

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[16] “First World country must have First World government and opposition: MM Lee”, 22/4/2006, accessed on 23/2/2007

In this report, MM Lee was reported to have made the comment that “the opposition needs to move away from politics of the gutter” and that during the period of 1965-1981, when there was an absence of opposition MPs in the Parliament, “Singapore made rapid economic and social progress”.

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[17] “PM Lee says countries worldwide respect and admire Singapore's proven system”, 3/5/2006, accessed on 23/2/2007

In this report, PM Lee was reported to have made the following comments at a lunchtime election rally on 3/5/2006.

“What is the opposition's job? It's not to help the PAP do a better job ... because if they help the PAP do a better job, you're going to vote for me again and they're going to be out of a job for a long time. So their job is to make life miserable for me”“Right now we have Low Thia Khiang, Chiam See Tong, Steve Chia. We can deal with them. Suppose you had 10, 15, 20 opposition members in Parliament. Instead of spending my time thinking what is the right policy for Singapore, I'm going to spend all my time thinking what's the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters votes, how can I solve this week's problem and forget about next year's challenges?”

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[18] “Not perfect, but not bad: PM”, 4/5/2006, accessed on 23/2/2007

In this report, PM Lee was reported to have made the following comment about Opposition MP Mr. Low Thia Khiang.

“What he's very good at ... whenever we have a serious speech, at the end of the speech, he will stand up and ask a wicked question, just to cocok (poke) you, so that in case you are not alert, well, by chance he scores a point”“If you are alert, well, what to do, minus two points for the Opposition. Anyway, they have minus so many (points), a few more is okay for them”

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[19] National Day Rally Speech 2001 by PM Goh Chok Tong, accessed on 24/2/2007

In this speech, PM (now SM) Goh said: “I know some people want even greater freedom. But where politics is concerned, I prefer to ease up slowly rather than open up with a big bang. When Gorbachev opened up the Soviet Union with his ‘Glasnost’, the Soviet Union collapsed with a big bang. We should, therefore, pump the air into the political balloon slowly. I don’t intend to change my name to ‘Goh Ba Chev’!”

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[20] Speech by Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Harvard Club of Singapore's 35th Anniversary Dinner--Building A Civic Society, accessed on 22/2/2007

In this speech, PM (then still DPM) Lee made the following comments.

“I know that some groups would like us to open up even faster, and not just loosen restrictions but remove them altogether. But while we talk about OB markers and wider fairways, remember that most Singaporeans still do not play golf. Bread and butter issues are still uppermost in their minds. The Government must keep faith with this less articulate majority, to deliver jobs, security, and a better future for their children. The test of our policies is not how closely we approach an idealised model, but how well we move the majority forward so that we remake Singapore into a dynamic global city and the best home for Singaporeans”.

“To derive full benefit from civic participation, we must understand what it means, what is possible and practical, and how to make it work within the specific context of our society. After all, even during a heart-dropping bungee jump you are still attached firmly by the bungee cord to an anchor point, and proper techniques and precautions make the sport safe and enjoyable”.

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[21] “Lee Kuan Yew: The Man And His Ideas”, Han Fook Kwang et al, The Straits Times Press & Times Edition Pte Ltd, 1998, page 229

MM (then still SM) Lee: “I have never been overconcerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popular polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader. If you are concerned with whether your rating will go up or down, then you are not a leader. You are just catching the wind. You will go where the wind is blowing. And that’s not what I am in this for”.

“The whole ground can be against, but if I know this is right, I set out to do it, and I am quite sure, given time, as events unfold, I will win over the ground … My job as a leader is to make sure that before the next elections, enough has developed and disclosed itself to the people to make it possible for me to swing them around. That’s the business of a leader – not to follow the crowd. That’s a washout. The country will go down the drain”.

In “Success Stories: Lee Kuan Yew”, a Radio Television Hong Kong documentary on him shown in 2002 and later also for several times on Channel News Asia, MM Lee expressed similar sentiments, accessed on 27/2/2007

MM Lee: “I ignore polling as a method of government. I think that shows a certain weakness of mind - an inability to chart a course. Whichever way the wind blows, whichever way the media encourages the people to go, you follow. You are not a leader”.

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[22] Speech by Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Harvard Club of Singapore's 35th Anniversary Dinner--Building A Civic Society, see supra note no. 20

PM Lee: “Civic participation must not degenerate into government by opinion polls. The Government will seek inputs actively, but it cannot only do things which are popular. Singapore cannot be governed by referendum, unlike Switzerland. And even some Swiss are tired of too many referendums and question if their Government should not be deciding on more things. After all the consultation and participation, ultimately it is the Government's duty to do what it considers right for the country, even if this should be unpopular. The Government cannot seek to be popular all the time and on every policy. It is held accountable at the end of the term, in the general election, when its policies have shown results”.

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