“Many Singaporeans wish for the government to adopt a different style and approach. We hear your voice. The PAP will learn from this election and put right what is wrong”
— Lee Hsien Loong, addressing Singaporeans after being elected for a second term as Prime Minister
The Prime Minister of Singapore stands out among world leaders for a curious reason — his pay packet. Indeed, the 59-year-old Lee Hsien Loong is considered the highest-paid political leader on the planet. He reportedly takes home $2.85 million a year, approximately 40 times the city-state’s annual per-capita GDP and considerably more than the U.S. President’s $400,000-a-year salary. But, remuneration is not the only factor that differentiates Loong from other heads of governments today. Unlike any of his peers, he has the twin responsibilities of running his country’s government as well as guarding a unique political legacy.
After all, Loong is the son of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister and unquestionably the chief architect of the country’s transformation from a poor, resource-deficient British colonial outpost in the 60s to the economic powerhouse it is today. Yew, often referred to as the founder of modern Singapore, became Prime Minister in 1959, a year after the State of Singapore was established through an Act of the U.K. Parliament. However, the political initiation of the young Cambridge-educated lawyer was more a baptism by fire. Although his People’s Action Party (PAP) had secured a landslide victory in the elections for Singapore’s new Legislative Assembly, the prospect of creating a nation from a speck of an island full of plantations and fishing villages appeared bleak.
In those days Singapore, which is around 3.5 times the size of Washington, D.C., was a third-world country that imported nearly all of the everyday basic goods its people consumed. Unemployment on the island hovered around the low-double-digit mark, while a severe housing problem made it even more difficult for citizens. Worse still, Singapore had poor infrastructure, little capital, only a handful of industries, and hardly any foreign investment. Low-end commerce was the core economic activity in the city-state. Yew and his team set about tackling each of these problems with a combination of vision, zeal, and old-fashioned common sense. A program was launched to construct thousands of high-rise, low-cost apartments, the education system was overhauled to create a skilled workforce, and English was given preference over Chinese, a language spoken by the majority of the island’s people. To check rapid population growth in the small island-nation, the Stop at Two Family Planning Campaign (involving sterilization) was introduced, and government servants were consistently paid extremely competitive salaries to keep them away from corruption. Yew remained Prime Minister until 1990 and the numerous policy measures he took during his long tenure gave Singapore nearly all the attributes it boasts of today — South East Asia’s richest nation, a bigger per-capita income than many European nations, a thriving export sector, a ultra-developed metropolis, gold-standard infrastructure, world-class institutions, and, most importantly, an orderly, disciplined, and relatively crime-free society.
As the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew, Loong grew up watching this remarkable metamorphosis of Singapore in the 60s and 70s. It is hard to say whether he was groomed for high office then, but Loong certainly entered public service fairly early in his life. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that he was well prepared. Loong got a first-class degree in mathematics from Cambridge and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard. He then spent some time in the military, rising rapidly to the rank of brigadier-general, before quitting and joining politics as a member of PAP in 1984, at age 32. Over the next decade, Loong climbed the political ladder swiftly, wearing the hat of Minister of Trade and Industry as well as Defense. He was appointed Deputy Prime Minister in 1990, when Goh Chok Tong, an associate of Lee Kuan Yew and somebody who had also played an important role in the early years of Singapore’s nationhood, took the helm of government from Yew as the country’s second Prime Minister.
Notably, the early phase of Loong’s career, when he was in his 30s and 40s, presented a sharp contrast between his meteoric political ascent and his personal life. In 1982, while still in the military, he lost his first wife soon after she delivered their second child. Exactly ten years later, and two years after Loong had been appointed Deputy Prime Minister, life dealt another blow when he was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer in the lymphatic cells of his immune system.
After facilitating Singapore’s smart recovery from the global economic crisis in 2009 and 2010, Loong now has the task of ensuring that his country’s export-driven economy does not trip if world trade dwindles amid the current slowdown.
But in true Lee family spirit, Loong showed that setbacks can be overcome. In 1985, he married businesswoman Ho Ching, who has bore him two children since. Taking on cancer, Loong first underwent treatment and once the disease went into remission, assumed the additional roles of finance minister and chairman of the central bank. This was the 90s, and as the second-in-command in Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s cabinet and the head of various other government bodies, Loong spearheaded several reforms to keep fine-tuning Singapore’s economic and social structure. Eventually, Loong rose to the pinnacle of his career in 2004, when he was appointed Prime Minister.
It has been more than seven years since then and Loong has already begun his second term as Prime Minister. But life seems to have come full circle for him. Problems have returned to dog Loong, this time in his professional life. After facilitating Singapore’s smart recovery from the global economic crisis in 2009 and 2010, Loong now has the task of ensuring that his country’s export-driven economy does not trip if world trade dwindles amid the current slowdown. One of his key challenges for the long term is Singapore’s chronic decline in birth rate. Owing to the national obsession with being excessively career-oriented and competitive, a trait described as kiasu by Singaporeans, and the lagging effects of the government’s population-control measures implemented in the 60s, the country’s births per woman now stand at 1.15 when, for the population to simply replace itself, the number should be at least 1.8.
But the issue that is likely uppermost on Loong’s mind now is one that has rarely troubled his predecessors. Since the Lee Kuan Yew era, critics of the PAP have contended that the party has not only adopted some very draconian measures for growth and social order but also exerted excessive control over the country’s political process. Pointing to the fact that the PAP has been in power ever since Singapore’s independence, they have accused the party of stifling the growth of a strong and constructive opposition in the country. These voices seem to be getting louder now. And, likely, they have been heard by Singapore’s electorate. The PAP’s vote share in elections has fallen from 75% in 2001 and 67% in 2006 to 60% in the polls conducted last May. Further, the May elections, which gave Loong the nod for his second term as Prime Minister, resulted in the opposition winning six key seats, its highest-ever tally of seats in the 87-member parliament.
To his credit, Loong appears mindful of this trend as a sign of the times, and he has publicly expressed his determination to make his government more accountable and responsive. In a televised news conference in May, he said “Many Singaporeans wish for the government to adopt a different style and approach. We hear your voice.” And, in a move that may be considered unusual in Singapore, Loong actually apologized for some of the mistakes his government had made in the previous term and promised to set them right.
Coming as they are from the custodian of the great Lee legacy, these pledges have caught the world’s attention, and, if they are kept, Loong will be known on the global stage for something surely more meaningful than his pay packet.
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© Thomas White International, Ltd. 2019