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