Lee Kuan Yew steps down from Singapore's government after half a century

Blunt-speaking former prime minister, with his impatience of dissent, seen by many Singaporeans as out of touch with the current mood and expectations of the people.

Singapore's founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, waving to his supporters, is to quit the cabinet to make way for younger leaders after the ruling party's worst performance in an election.
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SINGAPORE // For most Singaporeans, it is inconceivable that the government does not have Lee Kuan Yew at the helm or very near it.

That break with the past came sooner than expected at the weekend with the announcement that Mr Lee, 87, had relinquished the reverential title of "minister mentor" and stepped down from active politics after more than half a century at the very top.

No one is predicting that Mr Lee's exit will bring a shake-up of the tightly managed political system that helped turn Singapore from an economic backwater at independence in 1965 to a roaring success and moulded it into a world-class financial hub.

Rather, there was a sense that the blunt-speaking Mr Lee, with his impatience of dissent, was out of touch with the mood and expectations of the people of Singapore, and it was time to move on.

That was underlined in this month's general election, which the ruling party won but with its most dismal performance since independence in 1965.

Mr Lee remains a member of parliament and his son is prime minister but he said on Saturday that he and Goh Chok Tong, another former prime minister, were stepping down from the cabinet to allow "a younger generation to carry Singapore forward in a more difficult and complex situation".

"A younger generation, besides having a non-corrupt and meritocratic government and a high standard of living, wants to be more engaged in the decisions which affect them," the statement said.

Mr Lee has been the omnipotent leader of Singapore, as flag-bearer of independence, as prime minister of the republic for 25 years and later another 21 years in the cabinet as senior minister and then as minister mentor.

But his attitude - he once said: "We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think" - is increasingly perceived as behind the times.

Eugene Tan, assistant professor at the Singapore Management University, said: "The old way of doing things was increasingly being seen as anachronistic, and being out of touch or even being seen as dictatorial. And so I think it is a break from the past."

Some of Mr Lee's comments may have cost the PAP votes at the election, other commentators have said. He said during the campaign that if a constituency voted for the opposition the voters would have "five years to repent."

Mr Lee was unopposed in his constituency in the May 7 general election but the PAP returned to power with only about 60 per cent of the popular vote, the lowest since independence in 1965.

His son, Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore's current prime minister, said after the election: "Many [Singaporeans] wish for the government to adopt a different style and approach. It marks a distinct shift in our political landscape."

He has not taken a decision on the resignations of Mr Goh and his father, but should finalise the new cabinet early this week, media reports said.

The Straits Times, the city's main newspaper, which usually reflects government thinking, said in an analysis on Sunday that when Lee Kuan Yew took over, the nation "had yet to learn to read and write, far less to create jobs".

"Close engagement of the mass citizenry was not only unnecessary but would have been a non-starter."

Now, the newspaper said, "there is not only an implicit acknowledgement that their styles may no longer be in sync with the expectations of a younger generation, but that they may also no longer have an instinctive sense of the ground."

Still, there is no question Mr Lee's policies, which have brought surging economic growth and a place among the richest nations in the world, will continue to guide Singapore for decades, analysts said. Any changes are likely to be only at the margins.

"In terms of policy substance, strategic directions, I don't think there will be change," said Mr Tan at Singapore Management University.

"I think we will see change in the form of government in terms of how policies are packaged, how they are presented, how they are communicated, implemented, how people are consulted.

"We will see the imprint becoming more and more faint but I think it wouldn't do Singapore and Singaporeans good for there to be radical changes."

And while there will be political inclusiveness, there is unlikely to be complete tolerance of dissent, he added.

"We can certainly expect the government to be a lot more responsive, to pay more attention, to get more buy-in rather than trying to dictate to the people," Mr Tan said.

"I think we will see dissent being tolerated more; we will see the avenues for political expression being widened but like it or not, community interest will still take priority over individual interest."