Despite a life in the public eye, the son of Singapore founding father Lee Kuan Yew remains a mystery to many. Here's what the record shows, what colleagues say and what to expect from Lee Hsien Loong, the third prime minister in 39 years
PETER LIM RECOGNIZED a good story. It was the late 1980s, and Lim, then editor-in-chief of Singapore's Straits Times Group, was accompanying Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to Brunei when he witnessed an episode that left him amazed. Invited to try out a new semi-automatic rifle, the prime minister sprayed bullets through the nearest target on a firing range; when it came to his son's turn, Lim reported, former Brig.-Gen. Lee Hsien Loong missed with every round.
After publishing the story, however, Lim was bawled out by an officer who told him Lee Hsien Loong hadn't been aiming at the targets. When Lim contacted Lee, he confirmed that he had been getting the feel of the rifle and wasn't trying to hit anything in particular. Lim apologized and offered to publish a correction.
Much to Lim's surprise, Lee, who had not long before left the armed forces and become a government minister, criticized the officer for his approach, and told Lim not to worry, that it wasn't important.
The typical Singaporean official of the time would likely have demanded a retraction at the slightest hint of an error. To Lim, now a media consultant, Lee's ability to accept that a mistake had been made, and his confidence that his military credentials would not be undermined by an inaccurate news report, set him apart from the previous generation.
As he takes over as prime minister, only the third since Singapore became independent 39 years ago, Lee Hsien Loong assumes the job with a great deal of such praise, from friends, colleagues and observers. But Lee, who declined to be interviewed for this article, also comes with some baggage and a few question marks.
He has been in politics for 20 years, but remains a bit of a mystery. Friends and colleagues call him a dedicated technocrat, decisive, determined and knowledgeable, but not everyone can cite occasions when he has demonstrated these traits.
He became a brigadier-general and No. 2 in the armed forces at 32, but his military skills have not been publicly demonstrated--understandably, given that Singapore's military was not truly challenged during his tenure.
In almost 14 years as deputy premier, while also serving for periods as finance minister and chairman of the Monetary Authority Of Singapore (MAS), the central bank, he has convinced many people that he is extremely capable, an effective administrator and leader in this city-state of 4.2 million people. But this record is not fully stress-tested since the Singapore government doesn't face the same scrutiny from parliament, the press and pressure groups as a government would in a more competitive political system.
He has a forceful personal style, say acquaintances, but he is also said to be a shy, private man--one whom the public tends to see as austere and aloof--more like his father Lee Kuan Yew, the republic's founding father, than Goh Chok Tong, his immediate predecessor. He enjoys a good argument, but it is said he can also be impatient with those he feels are wasting his time.
Above all, he is dogged by the perception that he might have risen to the top because he is the son of Lee Kuan Yew, whom he has named "minister mentor" in his cabinet.
Uncertainties notwithstanding, a series of interviews with and comments by individuals who feel they know him lends insight into what the new prime minister might offer Singapore now that he has his hands on the reins of power.
The natural conclusion is to expect nothing new. Although Lee's arrival is meant to mark a generational change, at 52 and after years on the job he does not offer the prospect of departure from what the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) currently provides. Goh, who now takes the post of senior minister, will chair the MAS; Lee will remain finance minister.
Indeed, Lee has promised to maintain the incremental political and social liberalization that has been a hallmark of Goh's administration. In a speech to Singapore's Harvard Club in January, Lee promised to respond to what he acknowledged was a better-educated and more-informed younger generation seeking to "express themselves freely" and "voice diverse views." But he warned that "criticism that scores political points and undermines the government's standing" wouldn't be tolerated. Nor would "crusading journalism."
"There doesn't appear to be any substantive policy or philosophical agenda that marks him off from his predecessors or current colleagues," says Garry Rodan, a professor of politics at Australia's Murdoch University. "He represents continuity in the PAP's social conservatism, scepticism about laissez-faire economics and apprehension about political competition." Or, as a Western ambassador put it, "he's a product of the system, and he defends the system."
Noordin Sopiee, chairman and chief executive officer of Malaysia's Institute of Strategic and International Studies, calls Lee "a good soldier"--and not because he used to be in the military. Noordin recalls Lee once speaking on a "regional strategic issue" at a closed-door meeting and taking a position that he surmises Lee disagreed with personally. "I heard him arguing something that was quite preposterous, but nevertheless he argued it with gusto and sincerity, because that was the government line," says Noordin.
Could the government line now change? Simon Tay, a law professor and chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, says that outgoing Premier Goh and Malaysia's new Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi didn't get a chance to shine until they took power. "There are reasons to hope Lee Hsien Loong will blossom in the job," he says.
Civil servants say Lee, who became junior minister for trade and industry after entering Parliament in 1984, arrived with certain strong beliefs about the economy--a reliance on markets, keeping Singapore open rather than protectionist and ensuring that people had a strong incentive to work.
Lee is closely identified with helping to rescue the Singapore economy from recession and other economic storms, and preparing the country to remain competitive in an era of globalization. He headed two special economic committees set up at critical times to write blueprints for the future. The first, prepared in 1985-86, delivered an average 10% growth a year for the following decade.
Patrick Daniel, who worked for Lee as a director in the Trade and Industry Ministry, cites an early stand on the thorny issue of wage reform as characteristic of Lee. "His speech showed a complete mastery of the subject, and he had the guts to say: 'You've got to reform'," says Daniel, who is now a newspaper executive.
In his memoirs, Lee Kuan Yew tells how, in 1997, he got his son involved in preparations to end the protection of Singapore's banks and expose them to global competition. "He began meeting bankers and fund managers and mastered the workings of our financial sector," wrote the elder Lee. Appointed chairman of the MAS in 1998, Lee Hsien Loong, with the help of a few key officers, revamped the MAS and implemented the new approach. The father had the vision, while the son was the facilitator.
Lee is what is known in management theory as an "assessor developer," say people who have studied him closely: He trawls through the marketplace of ideas, often on the Internet, and selects those he considers appropriate for Singapore. One senior civil servant reports that Lee circulates drafts of his speeches and solicits ideas and comments.
Civil servants say Lee seized on and developed a series of reforms including reform of the financial sector, a goods and services tax, and a revitalized bureaucracy. Lee designed the GST, argued for it and did a great deal to get it adopted, they say.
"He conceptualizes the need for reform from the big, macroeconomic picture, customizes it for Singapore, and goes all the way to implementing it--everything from the timing to who does what," says Daniel, who served as secretary of the first economic committee that Lee chaired.
Daniel, now a managing editor at Singapore Press Holdings, describes Lee as a task-oriented policy wonk. "If you get the task done, everything is fine," he says. "If you don't, you have to answer to him."
Outside the government, others have encountered Lee's combative side. Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister who currently heads the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, clashed with Lee in the 1980s and 1990s on bilateral issues long-forgotten. "He gave no quarter in arguments, but equally expected none in return," says Evans. "He's pretty direct and frank."
Tay, the law professor, found himself in a sharp exchange with Lee 20 years ago, after Lee told students at the National University of Singapore that they shouldn't see themselves as a lobby group. Tay, then president of the students' union, disagreed. As the two young men raised their voices, organizers tried to calm them, but Lee would have none of it.
"It's a telling example about his character," says Tay, who later became a nominated member of parliament and continued to question Lee on various issues. "He believes in the substance. He felt there should be a robust debate, not just empty talk."
In expressing strong opinions, Lee can also leave others with the feeling that he thinks he alone has the answers. But based on the testimony of fellow politicians and foreign diplomats who regularly accompany visitors calling on Lee, he is keenly interested in the views of others.
Frank Lavin, the United States ambassador to Singapore, says Lee is invariably businesslike. "Sometimes this is mistaken for aloofness or arrogance," he says. "But I don't think that is true at all." Lee is "completely unpretentious and very unassuming," he adds. "There's no hubris about the man."
In part, Lee suffers from a comparison on a personal level with his predecessor. He isn't as warm or genial as Goh, say acquaintances, and doesn't engage in as much small talk. Colleagues say that while Lee isn't the back-slapping type, he has a wry sense of humour and sometimes laughs out loud with a distinctive guffaw.
Not much is known of Lee's life outside the office. He reads and spends a good deal of time on the Internet, say colleagues. Tall and slim, Lee is reported to be in good health after a battle with cancer in 1992. Pronounced cured after a course of intense chemotherapy that kept the lymphoma in remission for more than five years, he stretches and works out daily, jogging or swimming. He also tries to take a short break in the afternoon to "rest and calm down for an hour, if I can," as he told the Straits Times.
In Singapore, people tend to be cautious about offending a government that has shown little tolerance for criticism. Any number of locals--often grass-roots PAP officials or old friends--are quoted in local papers ascribing positive qualities to Lee, but their claims are sometimes hard to confirm.
Even the political opposition seems to tread carefully. Low Thia Khiang, one of only two opposition members of parliament, declines to comment on Lee. The other, Chiam See Tong, says it is Lee's intelligence that is at the root of the misunderstanding about him being above the heads of ordinary people. "Most people can't keep up with him," Chiam says. "That's why they find him abrupt."
Lee does have an image problem, identified by no less than Goh in his National Day address last August. "Loong's public persona is that of a no-nonsense, uncompromising and tough minister," Goh said. "Singaporeans would like Loong to be more approachable."
While Lee has been taking Goh's advice "to let his softer side show"--being filmed eating out casually with the family, for instance--"I can't say he's succeeded by all the talk I hear," says Lim, the former newspaper editor-in-chief.
Part of the problem is an undercurrent of resentment that Lee, for all his academic and political accomplishments, has had it easy because he is Lee Kuan Yew's son, and that he finds it difficult to empathize with less fortunate Singaporeans.
The cynicism surfaced with Lee's fast track through the military ranks to brigadier-general. His move into politics and rapid rise fuelled speculation that he was being groomed by his father to be premier. BG Lee, as he was then known, was widely referred to as "baby god."
"He's got the right economic vision, no doubt about that," says a Western diplomat. "The big test is getting that social and political touch for a modern society."